How to Learn Any LanguageQuickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and On Your Own by Barry FarberFounder of the Language Club/Nationally Syndicated Talk Show Host
To Bibi and Celia, for the pleasure of helping teach themtheir first language, followed by the pleasure of having themthen teach me their second!
Contents Acknowledgements Introduction Part I: My Story A Life of Language Learning Part II: The System Do As I Now Say, Not As I Then Did Psych UpFrench or Tagalog: Choosing a Language Gathering Your Tools The Multiple Track Attack Hidden Moments Harry Lorayne’s Magic Memory Aid The Plunge Motivations Language Power to the People Back to Basics Last Words Before the Wedding Part III: Appendices The Language Club The Principal Languages of the World Farber’s Language Reviews
Acknowledgements I want to thank my editor, Bruce Shostak, without whose skill and patience much ofthis book would have been intelligible only to others who’ve had a blinding passion forforeign languages since 1944. I further thank my publisher, Steven Schragis, forventuring into publishing territory heretofore officially listed as “uninteresting”. Dr.Henry Urbanski, Founder and Head of the New Paltz Language Immersion Institute, wasgood enough to review key portions of the manuscript and offer toweringly helpfulamendments. Dr. Urbanski’s associate, Dr. Hans Weber, was supremely helpful insafeguarding against error. I further wish to thank all my fellow language lovers from around the world whointerrupted their conversations at practice parties of the Language Club to serve aswilling guinea pigs for my questions and experimentations in their native languages.
How to Learn Any Language IntroductionThis may be the most frequently told joke in the world – it’s repeated every day in almostevery language: “What do you call a person who speaks two languages?” “Bilingual.” “What do you call a person who speaks three languages?” “Trilingual.” “What do you call a person who speaks four languages?” “Quadrilingual.” “What do you call a person who speaks only one language?” “An American!” With your help this book can wipe that smile off the world’s face. The reason Americans have been such notoriously poor language learners up tonow is twofold: 1. We’ve never really had to learn other peoples’ languages before, and 2. Almost all foreign language instruction available to the average American hasbeen until now (one hates to be cruel) worthless. “I took two years of high school Frenchand four more years in college and I couldn’t even order orange juice in Marseilles” ismore than a self effacing exaggeration. It’s a fact, a shameful, culturally impoverishing,economically dangerous, self defeating fact! Modern commerce and communications have erased reason 1. You and the method laid out in this book, working together, will erase reason 2. It started for me when I learned that the Norwegian word for “squirrel” was acorn.It may have been spelled ekorn, but it was pronounced acorn. Then I learned that“Mickey Mouse” in Swedish is Mussie Pig. Again, the Swedish spelling varied, but so
what? As delights like those continued to come my way, I realised I was being lockedtighter and tighter into the happy pursuit of language love and language learning. My favourite music is the babble of strange tongues in the marketplace. Nopainting, no art, no photograph in the world can excite me as much as a printed page oftext in a foreign language I can’t read – yet! I embraced foreign language study as a hobby as a teenager in 1944. When I wasinducted into the army in 1952, I was tested and qualified for work in fourteen differentlanguages. Since then I’ve expanded my knowledge of those languages and taken upothers. Whether fluently or fragmentally, I can now express myself in twenty-fivelanguages. That may sound like a boast, but it’s really a confession. Having spent so manyyears with no other hobby, I should today be speaking every one of those languagesmuch better than I do. If you’re a beginner, you may be impressed to hear me order ameal in Chinese or discuss the Tito-Stalin split in Serbo-Croatian, but only I know howmuch time and effort I wasted over those years thinking I was doing the right thing toincrease my command of those and other languages. This book, then, does not represent the tried and true formula I’ve been using since1944. It presents the tried and true formula I’d use if I could go back to 1944 and start allover again! Common sense tells us we can’t have dessert before we finish the meal; we can’thave a slim figure until we diet; we can’t have strong muscles until we exercise; wewon’t have a fortune until we make it. So far common sense is right. Common sense also tells us, however, that we can’t enjoy communicating in aforeign language until we learn it. This means years of brain benumbing conjugations,declensions, idioms, exceptions, subjunctives, and irregular verbs. And here commonsense is wrong, completely wrong. When it comes to learning foreign languages, we canstart with the dessert and then use its sweetness to inspire us to back up and devour themain course. What six year old child ever heard of a conjugation? Wouldn’t you love to be ableto converse in a foreign language as well as all the children of that tongue who’ve not yetheard of grammar? No, we’re not going to rise up as one throaty revolutionary mob,depose grammar, drag it out of the palace by the heels, and burn it in the main square.We’re just going to put grammar in its place. Up to now, grammar has been used by ourlanguage educators to anesthetise us against progress. If it’s grammar versus fun, we’regoing to minimise grammar and maximise fun. We’re going to find more pleasant waysto absorb grammar. Unfortunately, there are a lot more “self improvement” books than there is selfimprovement. Too many books whose titles are heavy with promise turn out to be all hatand no cattle – not enough take home after you deduct the generalities and exhortationsto “focus” and “visualise” your goals. Extracting usable advice from high promisingbooks can be like trying to nail custard pies to the side of a barn. Mindful of that danger, I will not leave you with nothing but a pep talk. Follow thesteps herein, and you will learn the language of your choice quickly, easily, inexpensively,enjoyably and on your own.
And you’ll have fun en route, though not nearly as much fun as you’ll have onceyou get that language in working order and take it out to the firing range of the realworld!The SystemThe language learning system detailed in this book is the result of my own continuous,laborious trial and error beginning in 1944. That which worked was kept, that whichfailed was dropped, that which was kept was improved. Technology undreamed of whenI started studying languages, such as the audiocasette and the tape player small enough tocarry while walking or jogging, was instantly and eagerly incorporated. The system combines: •THE MULTIPLE TRACK ATTACK: Go to the language department of any bookstore and you’ll see language books, grammars, hardcover and paperback workbooks, readers, dictionaries, flash cards, and handsomely bound courses on cassette. Each one of those products sits there on the shelf and says, “Hey, Bud. You want to learn this language? Here I am. Buy me!” I say, buy them all, or at least one of each! You may feel like you’re taking four or five different courses in the same language simultaneously. That’s good. A marvellous synergistic energy sets you soaring when all those tools are set together in symphony. •HIDDEN MOMENTS: Dean Martin once chided a chorus girl, who was apathetically sipping her cocktail, by saying, “I spill more than you drink!” All of us “spill” enough minutes every day to learn a whole new language a year! Just as the Dutch steal land from the sea, you will learn to steal language learning time, even from a life that seems completely filled or overflowing. What do you do, for example, while you’re waiting for an elevator, standing in line at the bank, waiting for the person you’re calling to answer the phone, holding the line, getting gas, waiting to be ushered from the waiting room into somebody’s office, waiting for your date to arrive, waiting for anything at any time? You will learn to mobilise these precious scraps of time you’ve never even been aware you’ve been wasting. Some of your most valuable study time will come in mini lessons of fifteen, ten, and even five seconds throughout your normal (though now usually fruitful) day. •HARRY LORAYNE’S MAGIC MEMORY AID: An ingenious memory system developed by memory master Harry Lorayne will help you glue a word to your recollection the instant you encounter it. What would you do right now if I gave you a hundred English words along with their foreign equivalents and told you to learn them? Chances are you would look at the first English word, then look at the foreign word, repeat it several times, then close your eyes and keep on repeating it, then cover up the foreign word, look only at the English and see if you could remember how to say it in the language you’re learning, then go on to the next word, then the next, and the next, and then go back to the first to see if you remembered it, and so on through the list. Harry Lorayne’s simple memory trick based on sound and association will make that rote attempt laughable. The words will take their place in your memory like
ornaments securely hung on a Christmas tree, one right after the other all the way up to many times those hundred words. •THE PLUNGE: You will escape the textbook incubator early and leap straightaway, with almost no knowledge of the language, into that language’s “real world”. A textbook in your target language, no matter how advanced, is not the real world. On the other hand, an advertisement in a foreign language magazine, no matter how elementary and easy to read, is the real world. Everything about you, conscious and subconscious, prefers real world to student world contact with the language. An actor knows the difference between rehearsal and opening night; the football player, between practice scrimmages and the kickoff in a crowded stadium. And you will know the difference between your lessons in the target language and the real world newspapers, magazines, novels, movies, radio, TV, and anything else you can find to throw yourself into at a stage your high school French teacher would have considered horrifyingly early! There you have it: The Multiple Track Attack, Hidden Moments, Harry Lorayne’sMagic Memory Aid, The Plunge. Visualise the target language as a huge piece of thin,dry paper. This system will strike a match underneath the middle of that paper, and yourknowledge, like the flame, will eat its way unevenly but unerringly outward to the veryends. Just as food manufacturers like to label their products “natural and organic”whenever they can get away with it, many language courses like to promise that you willlearn “the way a child learns.” Why bother? Why should you learn another language the way a child learned hisfirst one? Why not learn as what you are – an adult with at least one language in hand,eager to use that advantage to learn the next language in less time than it took to learn thefirst?
A Life of Language LearningA brief “language autobiography” may help readers whose language learning andlanguage loving careers began only a few moments ago with the opening of this book. My favourite word – in any language – is the English word foreign. I rememberhow it came to be my favourite word. At the age of four I attended a summer day camp.Royalty develops even among children that young. There were already a camp “king”and a camp “queen”, Arthur and Janet. I was sitting right beside Arthur on the bus onemorning, and I remember feeling honoured. Arthur reached into his little bag, pulled outan envelope, and began to show Janet the most fascinating pieces of coloured paper I’dever seen. “Look at these stamps, Janet,” he said. “They’re foreign!” That word reverberatedthrough my bone marrow. Foreign, I figured, must mean beautiful, magnetic, impressive– something only the finest people share with only the other finest people. From thatmoment forward, the mere mention of the word foreign has flooded me with fantasy. I thought everybody else felt the same, and I had a hard time realising they didn’t.When a schoolmate told me he turned down his parents’ offer of a trip to Europe for atrip out West instead, I thought he was crazy. When another told me he found localpolitics more interesting than world politics, I thought he was nuts. Most kids are boredwith their parents’ friends who come to dinner. I was too, unless that friend happened tohave been to a foreign country – any foreign country – in which case I cross examinedhim ruthlessly on every detail of his foreign visit. Once a visitor who’d been through my interrogation to the point of brain blur saidto my mother upon leaving, “What a kid! He was fascinated by every detail of every hourI ever spent in another country, and the only other place I’ve ever been is Canada!’How Latin Almost Ruined ItWalking into Miss Leslie’s Latin class on the first day of ninth grade was the culminationof a lifelong dream. I could actually hear Roman background music in my mind. I didn’t
understand how the other students could be anything less than enthusiastic about theprospect of beginning Latin. Electricity coursed through me as I opened the Latin bookMiss Leslie gave us. I was finally studying a foreign language! The first day all we did was learn vocabulary. Miss Leslie wrote some Latin wordson the blackboard, and we wrote them down in our notebooks. I showed early promise asthe class whiz. I quickly mastered those new words, each then as precious as Arthur’sforeign stamps had been eleven years earlier. When Miss Leslie had us close our booksand then asked “Who remembers how to say ‘farmer’ in Latin,” I was the first to split theair with the cry of “Agricola!” I soaked up those foreign words like the Arabian desertsoaks up spiled lemonade. What happened thereupon for a short time crippled, but then enriched, my lifebeyond measure. I was absent from school on day four. When I returned on day five, there were nomore Latin words on the blackboard. In their place were words like nominative, genitive,dative, accusative. I didn’t know what those words meant and I didn’t like them. That“nominative-genitive” whatever-it-was was keeping me from my feast, and I resented itlike I resent the clergyman at the banquet whose invocation lasts too long. The more Miss Leslie talked about these grammatical terms, the more bored I got.Honeymooners would have more patience with a life insurance salesman who knockedon their motel door at midnight than I had with Latin grammar. I clearly rememberbelieving languages were nothing but words. We have words. They have words. And allyou have to do is learn their words for our words and you’ve got it made. Therefore allthat “ablative absolute” stuff Miss Leslie was getting increasingly excited about wasunneeded and, to me, unwanted. Miss Leslie, noting that I, her highly motivated superstar, was floundering withelementary Latin grammar, kindly offered to assign another student to tutor me on whatI’d missed the day before, or even to sit down with me herself. I remember declining theoffer. I remember deciding, with the logic of a frustrated fifteen year old, that grammarwas just another of those barriers designed by grownups to keep kids from having toomuch fun. I decided to wait it out. I shut off my brain as the cascade of changing noun endings and mutating verbforms muscled out the joy of my beloved vocabulary words. I longed for the good olddays of being the first in the class to know agricola. More and more that Miss Leslie saidmade less and less sense. I was trapped in a Bermuda Triangle. My aura of classroomcelebrity disappeared, along with my self esteem, my motivation, and almost myaffection for things foreign. I limped along, barely making passing grades; I only managed to pass thanks to thevocabulary section on every test. My knowledge of vocabulary plus some goodgrammatical guesswork and a little luck got me through Miss Leslie’s class with a low D. Some of the other students seemed to be enjoying my lameness in Latin, after mybeing the overpraised and preening star of the class for the first three days. To assuagethe hurt, I got hold of a self study book in Chinese. By the last few weeks of school, itwas apparent that there was no way I could make better than a weak D in Latin, but thatwas enough to pass. I hid my humiliation behind that outrageously foreign looking bookwith thick, black Chinese characters all over the cover. I buried all thoughts of Latin insour grapes and sat there and studied Chinese instead!
Chinese Sailors Don’t Speak LatinForsaking Latin for Chinese was my own form of juvenile defiance. However, I havesince used Chinese in some way almost every day. I confess to occasional curiosity as towhat all those A students from Miss Leslie’s Latin class are doing these days with theirLatin. During summer vacation we went to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. On onetrip, as Uncle Bill drove us from the train station in Miami to Miami Beach, we passed alarge group of marching sailors. As we drew abreast of the last row I noticed that thesailor on the end was Chinese. Then I noticed that the sailor beside him was also Chinese.I blinked. The whole last row was Chinese. And the next whole row was Chinese too. The entire contingent of marching sailors was Chinese! I felt like a multimillion dollar lottery winner slowly realising he’d gotten all theright numbers. I had no idea there were Chinese sailors in Miami, but why not? It wasduring World War II, China was our ally, and Miami was a port. There they were,hundreds of native speakers of the language I was trying to learn. I couldn’t wait to fling myself into their midst sputtering my few phrases of Chineseat machine gun velocity. I didn’t know what adventures were awaiting my Latinclassmates that summer, but I was confident none of them were about to approach anentire contingent of sailors who spoke Latin! When we got to my grandparents’ hotel, I gave them the quickest possible hug andkiss, ran out, took the jitney back over the causeway to Miami, and started askingstrangers if they knew where the Chinese sailors were. Everybody knew the Chinese sailors were billeted in the old Hotel Alcazar onBiscayne Boulevard. After their training, I was told, they gathered in groups and strolledaround Bayfront Park. I waited. Sure enough, in late afternoon the park filled with Chinese sailors. Ipicked a clump of them at random and waded on in, greeting them in phrases I’d beenable to learn from the book my parents had bought me. I’d never heard Chinese spokenbefore. No records, tapes, or cassettes. I could hit them only with the Chinese a D studentin Latin could assemble from an elementary self study book in Chinese conversation inGreensboro, North Carolina. It sounded extraplanetary to the Chinese sailors, but at least they understood enoughto get the point that here was no Chinese American, here was no child of missionaryparents who’d served in China. Here was essentially an American urchin hellbent onlearning Chinese without any help. They decided to provide the help. You don’t have to win a war to get a hero’s welcome. The Chinese naval unitsstationed in Miami seemed suddenly to have two missions – to defeat the Japanese and tohelp me learn Chinese! A great side benefit to learning foreign languages is the love andrespect you get from the native speakers when you set out to learn their language. You’refar from an annoying foreigner to them. They spring to you with joy and gratitude. The sailors adopted me as their mascot. We met every afternoon in Bayfront Parkfor my daily immersion in conversational Chinese. A young teenager surrounded by
native speakers and eager to avenge a knockout by a language like Latin learns quickly.There was something eerie about my rapid progress. I couldn’t believe I was actuallyspeaking Chinese with our military allies in the shadow of the American built destroyerson which they would return to fight in the Far East. If only Miss Leslie could see menow! Naturally my grandparents were disappointed that I didn’t spend much time withthem, but their bitterness was more than assuaged when I bought gangs of my Chinesesailor friends over to Miami Beach and introduced them to my family. My grandparentshad the pleasure of introducing me to their friends as “my grandson, the interpreter forthe Chinese navy.” I exchanged addresses and correspondence with my main Chinese mentor, FanTung-shi, for the next five years. Sadly, his letters stopped coming when the ChineseCommunists completed their conquest of the Mainland. (He and I were joyously reunitedexactly forty years later when a Taiwan newspaper interviewed me and asked me how Ilearned Chinese. One of Fan’s friends saw his name in the article.) That summer, in Will’s Bookstore on South Green Street back in Greensboro, Iwalked past the foreign language section and spotted a book entitled Hugo’s ItalianSimplified. I opened it, and within ten or fifteen seconds the “background music” startedagain.Arrividerci, LatinItalian, I discovered, was Latin with all the difficulty removed. Much as a skilled cheffillets the whole skeleton out of a fish, some friendly folks somewhere had lifted all thatgrammar (at least, most of it) out of Latin and called the remainder Italian! There was no nominative-genitive-dative-accusative in Italian. Not a trace, exceptin a few pronouns which I knew I could easily take prisoner because we had the samething in English (me is the accusative of I). Italian verbs did misbehave a little, but not tothe psychedelic extent of Latin verbs. And Italian verbs were a lot easier to look at. I bought Hugo’s book and went through it like a hot knife through butter. I couldhave conversed in Italian within a month if there’d been anybody around who could haveunderstood – a learning aid which the Greensboro of that day, alas, could not provide. I was clearly a beaten boxer on the comeback trail. Why was I all of a sudden doingso well in Italian after having done so poorly in Latin? Was it my almost abnormal motivation? No. I’d had that in Latin, too. Was it thatItalian was a living language you could go someplace some day and actually speak,whereas Latin was something you could only hope to go on studying? That’s a littlecloser to the mark, but far from the real answer. My blitz through Italian, after my unsuccessful siege of Latin, owed much to thefact that in Italian I didn’t miss day four! I’m convinced that it was day four in ninthgrade Latin that did me in. No other day’s absence would have derailed me. When I lefton day three we were bathing in a warm sea of pleasant words. If only I’d been there onday four when Miss Leslie explained the importance of grammar, I might have felt a bitdampened, but I’d have put my head into the book, clapped my hands over my ears, andmastered it.
After Italian I surged simultaneously into Spanish and French with self study books.Though by no means fluent in either Spanish or French by summer’s end, I had amassedan impressive payload of each. I was ready to stage my come from behind coup. Regulations in my high school demanded that a student complete two years of Latinwith good grades before continuing with another language. After that, one could chooseSpanish or French. I had completed only one year of Latin with poor grades, and Iwanted to take both Spanish and French! I had not yet learned the apt Spanish proverb that tells us “regulations are for yourenemies.” I learned the concept, however, by living it. Miss Mitchell was the sole foreign language authority of the high school. Shetaught Spanish and French. She was considered unbendable – in fact, unapproachable –in matters of regulation fudging. I didn’t know that on the first day as classes wereforming. I’m glad I didn’t. I went to her classroom and asked if I might talk something over with her. I told herI was particularly interested in foreign languages, and even though I’d only had one yearof Latin and didn’t do well in it at all, I’d really like to move into Spanish and French. Ifshe could only see her way clear to let me, I’d appreciate it forever and try awfully hard. She asked if I had a transcript of my grades from Miss Leslie’s Latin class. No, Ididn’t, I explained, but I had something more to the point. I’d bought books in Spanishand French over the summer and gotten a good head start. I hoped a demonstration of myzeal would win her favour. Like a tough agent softening sufficiently to let a persistent unknown comic do partof his routine, Miss Mitchell invited me to do my stuff. I conversed, I read, I wrote, I recited, I conjugated, I even sang – first in Spanish,then in French. Miss Mitchell gave no outward sign of emotion, but I knew the magic hadworked. “I’ll have to talk it over with the principal,” she said, “but I don’t think there will bea problem. We’ve never had a case anything like this before. If I can get approval, whichlanguage, Spanish or French, would you like to take?” In a fit of negotiatory skill I wish would visit me more often, I said, “Please, MissMitchell, let me take both!” She frowned, but then relented. I got to take both. From the ambitious boxer floored early in round one by Latin grammar, I was all ofa sudden the heavyweight language champ of the whole high school!Ingrid Bergman Made Me Learn NorwegianI did well in high school Spanish and French. When you’ve pumped heavy iron, lifting asalad fork seems easy. When you’re thrown into a grammar as complex as Latin’s at theage of fourteen, just about any other language seems easy. I never quit thanking Spanish,French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Yiddish just fornot being Latin. I’ve always been particularly grateful to Chinese and Indonesian forhaving nothing in their entire languages a Latin student would recognise as grammar. It was so enjoyable building my knowledge of Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese,I never thought of taking on any other languages. Then I saw an Ingrid Bergman movieand came out in a daze. I’d never imagined a woman could be that attractive. I went
directly to the adjoining bookstore and told the clerk, “I want a book in whateverlanguage it is she speaks.” Miss Bergman’s native tongue, the clerk told me, was Swedish, and he bought fortha copy of Hugo’s Swedish Simplified. It cost two dollars and fifty cents. I only had twodollars with me. “Do you have anything similar – cheaper?” I asked. He did indeed. He produced a volume entitled Hugo’s Norwegian Simplified foronly one dollar and fifty cents. “Will she understand if I speak to her in this?” I asked, pointing to the lessexpensive Norwegian text. The clerk assured me that yes, any American speakingNorwegian would be understood by any native Swede. He was right. A lifetime later, at age thirty, I wheedled an exclusive radio interviewwith Ingrid Bergman on the strength of my ability in her language. She was delightedwhen I told her the story. Or at least she was a nice enough person and a good enoughactress to pretend.Rumours of RussianWhen I arrived at the University of North Carolina, I got my first real opportunity tospeak the European languages I was learning with native speakers. Students at theuniversity came from many different countries. The Cosmopolitan Club, a group offoreign students and Americans who wanted to meet one another, gathered every Sundayafternoon in the activities building. I felt like a bee flitting from blossom to blossom untilit is too heavy with pollen to fly or even buzz. A rumour rippled across the campus in my senior year that seemed too good to betrue. The university, it was whispered, was planning to start a class in Russian. Sure enough, the rumour was soon confirmed. It was a historic event. Not only wasthe course the first in Russian ever offered by the University of North Carolina (orpossibly by any university in the South), it also represented the first time the universityhad offered what one student called a “funny looking” language of any kind (he meantlanguages that don’t use the Roman alphabet)! The enrollment requirements were stiff. First you had to have completed at leasttwo years in a “normal” language (Spanish, French, Italian, Portugese) with good grades.I qualified and was accepted. For me the first day of Russian was a lot like the first day of school. I’d toyed withone funny looking language already (Chinese), but I knew Russian was a different kindof funny looking. Would I conquer it, as I had Spanish and Norwegian, or would Russianswallow me whole, as Latin had? There were forty-five of us in that Russian class thinking varying versions of thesame thing when the teacher, a rangy Alabaman named “Tiger” Titus, entered the room.After a formal “Good morning” he went straight to the front of the room and wrote theRussian (Cyrillic) alphabet on the blackboard. You could feel the group’s spirit sink notch by notch as each of Russian’s “funnylooking” letters appeared. Students were allowed under university rules to abandon acourse and get themselves into another as long as they did it within three days after thebeginning of the term. We had defections from Russian class in mid-alphabet. By the
time Tiger Titus turned around to face us, he had fewer students than had entered theroom. “My soul!” exclaimed one of the deserters when I caught up with him at thecafeteria later that day. “I’ve never seen anything like that Russian alphabet before in mylife. Why, they’ve got v’s that look like b’s, n’s that look like h’s, u’s that look like y’s,r’s that look like p’s, and p’s that look like sawed off goal posts. They got a backwards nthat’s really an e and an x that sounds like you’re gagging on a bone. They got a vowelthat looks like the number sixty-one, a consonant that looks like a butterfly with its wingsall the way out, and damned if they don’t even have a B-flat!” The next day there were no longer forty-five members of the university’s firstRussian class. There were five. I was one of the intrepid who hung in.A Lucky Bounce to the BalkansWriter/columnist Robert Ruark, a talented North Carolinian and drinking buddy of AvaGardner, once wrote boastfully about a college weekend that began someplace likePhiladelphia and got out of hand and wound up in Montreal. I topped him. I went to acollege football game right outside Washington, D.C., one weekend and wound up inYugoslavia for six weeks! The previous summer I’d been named a delegate from the university to the nationalconvention of the National Student Association. I came back as chairman for theVirginia-Carolinas region of NSA. In October I was in College Park, Maryland, for theCarolina-Maryland game. At half time, at the hot dog stand, who should be reaching forthe same mustard squirter as I but National NSA president, Bill Dentzer. “Who can believe this?” he said. “We’ve been looking for you for three days!” I explained it was our big senior out of town football weekend and College Park,Maryland was a long way from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and there was a lot going onand I was sorry he couldn’t reach me. “Why were you looking for me?” I asked. “We wanted you to go represent us in Yugoslavia,” he said. I told him I’d love to. “It’s too late now,” he said. “The plane leaves Monday from New York, and it’salready Saturday afternoon and the State Department’s closed, so there’s no way to getyou a passport…” “Bill,” I interrupted, “I have a passport. I can easily get back to Chapel Hill andpick it up in time to fly from New York on Monday.” By Wednesday I was attending sessions of a spirited Tito propaganda fiesta calledthe Zagreb Peace Conference and enjoying my first immersion in a language the meremention of which impresses people even more than Chinese: Serbo-Croatian! To my delight, I understood entire phrases from it from my university Russian. Ibecame aware of “families” of foreign languages, something that doesn’t occurautomatically to Americans because English doesn’t resemble its cousins very closely.It’s something of a black sheep in the Germanic language family. They say the closestlanguage to English is Dutch. Dutch is about as close to English as Betelgeuse is toBaltimore! I’d noticed the summer before that Norwegian is usefully close to Swedish andDanish. Serbo-Croatian sounded to me like a jazzier, more “fun” kind of Russian. They
use the Roman alphabet in western Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Slovenia, and in Serbia tothe east they use the Cyrillic alphabet, with even more interesting letters in it thanRussian uses. Some of the mystique I’d always imputed to multilingual people began to fade. Ifyou meet somebody who speaks, say, ten languages, your instinct is to be impressed tothe tune of ten languages worth. If, however, you later learn that six of those languagesare Russian, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Polish and Ukrianian – I’m not suggestingthat you dismiss him as illiterate, but you ought to be aware that he got six of thoselanguages for the price of about two and three fourths! They’re all members of the Slavicfamily. The Yugoslav university students, my hosts, sent me back home aboard a Yugoslavship, leaving me sixteen days with nothing to do but practice Serbo-Croatian with theother passengers. When I got back to school after a solid eight weeks’ absence, I wasn’teven behind in my German. German is widely spoken in central Europe and I’d spoken itwidely enough during the adventure to float almost even with the class.Exotics – Hard and EasyExpertise is a narcotic. As knowledge grows, it throws off pleasure to its possessor, muchlike an interest bearing account throws off money. A pathologist who can instantly spotthe difference between normal and abnormal X-rays grows incapable of believing thatthere are those of us who can’t. I find it hard to believe there are Americans who can’teven tell the difference between printed pages of Spanish and French or of Polish,Danish, or anything else written in the Roman alphabet. Too bad. If you can’t distinguishthe easier languages from the harder ones, you miss the higher joys of confronting yourfirst samples of written Finnish. Finland has been called the only beautiful country in the world where the languageis the major tourist attraction. It’s utterly unfamiliar to you no matter where you comefrom, unless you happen to come from Estonia, in which case Finnish is only halfunfamiliar to you. There’s always a general knowledge heavyweight around who says,“Wait a minute. Finnish is related to Hungarian too!” Oh, yeah! True, Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian are indeed all members of theFinno-Ugric language family, but try to find more than six words even remotely similarin each. As you learn more and more about foreign languages, you’re able to laugh atmore and more jokes about languages. No Las Vegas comic will even knock socks off, oreven loosen them, by standing up and saying, “You know, Finnish and Hungarian arecousin languages, but Finnish took all the vowels!” Look at the two languages side byside, however, and you’ll grudgingly accord at least minor wit status to whoever thoughtthat one up. You may have experienced the difficulties of tackling Latin and Russian with theirhalf dozen or so noun cases. Finnish has fifteen noun cases in the singular and sixteen inthe plural! Every word in the entire language is accented on the first syllable, which givesFinnish something of the sounds of a pneumatic jackhammer breaking up a sidewalk. I covered the Olympic Games in Helsinki but wisely decided not to try to learnFinnish. It was the wisdom of the young boxer who’s eager to get in there with the champ
and trade punches, but who nonetheless summons up the cool to decline and wait untilhe’s more prepared. I found a much softer opponent on the ship back to the United States. A summer tradition that vanished after the 1950’s with far too little poeticlamentation was the “student ship to Europe.” They were almost always Dutch shipsoffering unbelievably low fares, hearty food, cramped but clean accommodations, cheapbeer, and always a bearded guitar player who drew the crowd back to the ship’s fantailafter dinner and led the kids of ten or twelve nations in throaty renditions of “I’ve BeenWorking on the Railroad.” The singing, the flirting, the joy of heading over or headinghome, and especially the learning of all the other countries’ “Railroads” in all the otherlanguages made the summer student ship a delight unimaginable to today’s jet laggedyoung Dutch airmen about my age. They were all headed for the United States to taketheir jet fighter training at various American air bases, and we became old friends atonce. There seemed to be dozens (I later realised hundreds) of Indonesian servants onboard. After four hundred years of Dutch rule, Indonesia had won its independence fromHolland only four years earlier. The thousands of Indonesians who chose to remain loyalto Holland had to go to Holland, and that meant that virtually the entire Dutch serviceclass was Indonesian. I was sitting on the deck talking to one of the Dutch pilots, Hans van Haastert. Hecalled one of the Indonesians over and said something to him in fluent Indonesian. Myromance with Dutch would begin (in a very unusual way) a few years later, but myromance with Indonesian was born in the lightning and thunder of Hans ordering a beerfrom that deck chair. If I had never been drawn to foreign languages earlier, that moment alone wouldhave done it. To me at that time, it was the white suited bwana speaking something pure“jungle” to one of his water carriers in any one of a hundred and eighteen safari moviesI’d seen. It was Humphrey Bogart melting a glamourous woman’s kneecaps with a burstof bush talk she had no idea he even knew. “Where did you learn that?” I asked. It turned out that Hans, like many of hisDutch confreres, had been born in Java of mixed parents. His Indonesian was just as goodas his Dutch. “Will you teach me some?” I asked. For the next eight days, until we were interrupted by the New York City skyline,Hans patiently taught me the Indonesian language. When we parted, I was able toconverse with the Indonesian crewmen, just as Hans had that first day on deck. Lest thiscome across as a boast, let me hasten to point out that Indonesian is the easiest languagein the world – no hedging, no “almost”, no “among the easiest”. In my experience,Indonesian is the easiest. The grammar is minimal, regular, and simple. Once I began tolearn it, Indonesian didn’t seem “jungle” anymore. The Indonesians obligingly use theRoman alphabet, and they get along with fewer letters of it than we do. And their tonguehas an instant charm. The Indonesian word for “sun”, mata hari (the famous female spywas known as the “sun” of Asia) literally means “eye of the day”. When they make asingular noun plural in Indonesia, they merely say it twice. “Man,” for example, is orang.“Men” is orang orang. And when they write it, they just write one orang and put a 2 afterit, like an exponent in algebra (Orang 2). Orang hutan, the ape name pronounced bymany Americans as if it were “orang-u-tang,” is an Indonesian term meaning “man of theforest.”
My Toughest OpponentFor the next four years I avoided taking up any new languages. I had nothing against anyof them (except one). It was just that there were too many gaps in the tongues I’d alreadyentertained and I wanted to plug them up. The language I had something against was Hungarian. Before a summer weekendwith army buddies in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, I went to the post library and checkedout an army phrase book in Hungarian to look at over the weekend. The introductionbluntly warned, “Hungarian is perhaps the hardest language in the world, and it is spokenby only about ten million people.” I resolved I’d never get any closer to it. Hungarian was the next language I studied. When Hungary rebelled against Soviet oppression in 1956, I was invited by theU.S. Air Force to join a team of reporters covering Operation Safe Haven, the airlift of allHungarian refugees who were to receive asylum in the United States. That was far fromenough to make me want to study Hungarian – yet. Every child is treated to fantasies like Buck Rogers and his invincible ray gun,Superman, Batman, or, in my case, Jack Armstrong and his “mystery eye”, a powerimparted to him by a friendly Hindu who, merely by concentrating and holding his palmsstraight out, could stop every oncoming object from a fist to a bullet to a bull to anexpress train. By this time I began to note that similar powers – offensive and defensive –could unexpectedly and delightfully accompany the mastery of languages.No Iron Curtains for LanguageMany reporters got to the Hungarian border with Austria during the outpouring ofrefugees that followed the Soviet oppression of the Hungarian freedom fighters. Theywent to the Red Cross shelters on the Austrian side, interviewed some refugees and reliefworkers, and went home. I was invited to join a secret team of volunteer international“commandos” who actually slipped into Hungary by night to ferry refugees across theborder canal on a rubber raft. The centre of the refugee operation was the Austrian border village of Andau. Iasked a local policeman in German where the refugee headquarters was. It was Christmasnight. It was dark. It was cold. There were no tour bus operators on the streets hawkingtickets to the Hungarian border. He told me to go to Pieck’s Inn. At Pieck’s Inn thebartender said, “Room nineteen.” The fact that I was getting all this in German withoutlooking around for somebody who spoke English was a convenience, but that’s not whatI mean by the power of another language. That came next. I went upstairs to room nineteen and knocked on the door. “Who’s there?” shouteda voice in interestingly accented English. “I’m an American newspaper reporter,” I yelled back. “I understand you might helpme get to the Hungarian border.” He opened the door cussing. “I’ll never take another American to the border with usagain,” he said before the door even opened. “No more Americans! One of you bastardsdamned near got us all captured night before last.” He turned out to be a pleasant looking young man with blonde hair. When Iknocked, he was busy adjusting heavy duty combat boots. He continued his tirade as we
faced each other. “That American knew damned good and well that flashlights,flashbulbs, even matches were forbidden.” He went on in rougher language than I’ll hererepeat to tell how an American with a camera broke his promise and popped off aflashbulb while a raft load of refugees was in the middle of the canal, causing therefugees and the rescuers on both sides of the canal to scatter. That burst of light, ofcourse, let the Communists know exactly where the escape operation was taking place.He described in valiant but not native English exactly how much ice would have to formaround the shell of hell before any other American reporter or any reporter of any kindwould ever be invited to join the operation again. As he railed on, I noticed a Norwegian flag tacked to the wall behind him. “SnakkerDe norsk?” I asked (“Do you speak Norwegian?”). He stopped, said nothing for a few seconds. Then, like a Hollywood comic of the1940’s pulling an absurd reversal, he said, “You’ve got big feet, but there’s a pair ofboots on the other side of the bed that might fit you. Try ‘em on!” All night long we stood there waiting for the shadows to tell us that another groupof refugees had arrived on the far bank of the canal. Then we’d push the raft into thewater and play out the rope as our two boatmen paddled across. One would get out andhelp four or five Hungarians into the raft. When the raft was loaded, the boatman still inthe raft would tug on the rope and we’d pull it back over. Then the lone boatman wouldpaddle over again and repeat the process until all the refugees were on the Austrian side.The second boatman came back with the last load. We had to wait at least an hour to an hour and a half between refugee clusters. I wasthe coldest I’d ever been in my life, and there was no place to huddle behind or curl upinside. All we could do was stand there and wait. Light wasn’t the only thing prohibited.So was talk. Normal speech travels surprisingly far over frozen flatland, and it wasimportant not to betray our position to the Communist patrols. We were only allowed towhisper softly to the person immediately ahead of us on the rope and the personimmediately behind. I tried to remember what day it was. It was Thursday. It had only been the previousSaturday night when I’d taken a Norwegian girl, Meta Heiberg, from Woman’s Collegeto the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina, where we saw newsreels ofalmost the very spot where I was now standing. When the screen showed Hungarianrefugees pouring into Austria, Meta had said, “My sister Karen’s over there somewherehelping those people.” That was all. The next day I got the call inviting me to fly over with the air force. On Monday Iflew. And here I was, freezing and waiting and marvelling at the courage of the boatmenwho voluntarily put themselves into jeopardy every time they crossed to the other side ofthe canal. Eventually I decided to avail myself of whispering rights. The figure in front of mewas so roundly bundled against the cold I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. I leanedforward and said, “My name is Barry Farber and I’m from America.” A woman’s voice replied, “My name is Karen Heiberg and I’m from Norway.” The cold, the power of the coincidence, and the tension of the border all combinedto keep me from maximising that opportunity. All I managed to do was flatfootedly utterthe obvious: “I took your sister Meta to the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, NorthCarolina, five nights ago.”
The effect on Karen was powerful. I can’t complain, but I wish I’d been quickenough to add, “She sent me over here to find out why you never write Uncle Olaf!”How I Married HungarianYou don’t launch into the study of a new language casually, but it’s not quite as solemn adecision as an American man proposing to his girlfriend after an evening of wine andlight jazz. It is, however, something like an Ottoman sultan deciding to take on anotherwife. It really is like a marriage. Something in you actually says, “I do!” and you decideto give it time and commitment that would ordinarily be invested elsewhere. My pledge never to try to learn Hungarian was shattered by Hungarian heroism,Soviet tanks, and my agreeing to help Hungarian refugees resettle in Greensboro. Iwasn’t the only journalist who stayed on that story long after history moved on. Everyjournalist I know who got involved in any part of the Hungarian Revolution becameattached to it. I started in Munich in the transit refugee camp for those fleeing Hungarians whowere destined to go to America. I buzzed from one refugee to another like a bee toblossoms, drawing as many words and phrases as I could from each and writing themdown. The U.S. Air Force gave its Luitpol barracks over to the Hungarians, who promptlyplastered their own signs right on top of the English signs on all the doors. The door thatonce said “Doctor” suddenly said “Orvos.” The door that once said “Clothing” suddenlysaid “Ruha.” And so on. It was easy to tell who among the Americans and Germans atLuitpol were genuine language lovers. They were the ones who were not annoyed. The Hungarian relabelling of everything at Luitpol actually gave me my mostexplosive language learning thrill. When I went searching for a men’s room, I foundmyself for the first time in my life not knowing where to go. You don’t need CharlesBerlitz to take you by the hand to the right one when the doors read “Mesdames” and“Messieurs,” “Damen” and “Herren,” “Señoras” and “Señores,” or even the ruralNorwegain “Kvinnor” and “Menn.” No such luck prevailed at Luitpol. The two doors were labelled “N k” and“Férfiak.” I looked at those two words, trying not to let my language lover’s enthusiasmdistract from the pragmatic need to decipher which one was which relatively soon. My thinking went like this. The k at the end of both words probably just made themplural. That left N and Férfia, or possibly Férfi. Something came to me. I rememberedreading that Hungarian was not originally a European language. It had been in Asia. TheChinese word for “woman”, “lady”, or anything female was nö – not no and not nu, butthat precise umlaut sound that two dots over anything foreign almost always represents.(I lose patience with language textbooks that spend a page and a half telling you to purseyour lips as though you’re going to say oo as in “rude” and then tell you instead to say eeas in “tree.” If you simply say the e sound in “nervous” or “Gertrude,” you’ll be closeenough. Following that hunch I entered the door marked “Fërfiak.” The joy that came nextshould arise in tabernacles, not men’s rooms. To my satisfaction and relief I walked inand found five or six other férfiak inside!
Back in America I went looking for some books and records (there were no cassettetapes in those days) to help me in Hungarian. There were none. Communist rule has socompletely cut Hungary off from the West that when you went looking for a Hungarianbook, the shelves of even the biggest bookstores leapfrogged Hungarian, jumping rightfrom Hebrew to Indonesian. There was one Hungarian-English phrase book published bya New York Hungarian delicatessen and general store named Paprikas Weiss. Toaccommodate the wave of Hungarian immigrants who had come to America in the1930’s, they had published their own little phrase book, which was distinguished by itsutter failure to offer a single phrase of any practical use whatsoever to those of usworking with the refugees. It was loaded with sentences like Almomban egy bet r velviaskodtom,” which means, “In my dream I had a fight with a burglar”! Finally, like supplies that lag far behind the need for them in wartime, some decentEnglish-Hungarian/Hungarian-English dictionaries arrived – no grammar books yet, justdictionaries. An explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson went to Greenland one time andproved you could live for eighteen months on nothing but meat. I proved it was possible,with nothing but that dictionary, to resettle half a dozen Hungarian refugees who spokeno English at all in Greensboro, North Carolina, to care for all their needs, and have agood deal of fun without one single bit of grammar! Hungarian has one of the most complex grammars in the world, but grammar is likeclassical music and good table manners. It’s perfectly possible to live without either ifyou’re willing to shock strangers, scare children, and be viewed by the world as arampaging boor. We had no choice. Hungarians had to be talked to about homes, jobs,training, money, driver’s licenses, and the education of their children. “Tomorrow we’ll go to the butcher’s,” for instance, had to do without the thirty-nine grammatical inflections a Hungarian sentence of that length would properly entail.We did it with nothing but the translation of essential words: “Tomorrow go meatfellow.” “A charitable woman is coming by to help you with your furniture needs”became “Nice lady come soon give tables chairs.” I learned Hungarian fluently – and badly. Many years later I decided to return toHungarian and learn it properly and grammatically. It’s a little like being back in Latinclass, but this time I have a much better attitude.New FriendsFor the next thirty-five years I stood my ground and resisted taking up any new language.The languages I’d studied up to that point included Spanish, French, Italian, German,Portugese, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese(Mandarin dialect), Indonesian, Hungarian, Finnish, Yiddish and Hebrew. I happilyapplied myself to building competence in those languages and turning a deaf ear to allothers. It was tempting to tackle Greek; so many Greeks I could have practiced with werepopping up in my daily travels, but I clung to my policy of “No more languages, thankyou!” That policy was misguided; in fact, swine headed. I was like the waiter standingthere with arms folded who gets asked by a diner if he knows what time it is andbrusquely replies “Sorry. That’s not my table!”
I could have easily and profitably picked up a few words and phrases every time Iwent to the Greek coffee shop and in the process learned another major language. But Ididn’t. In the 1980’s immigrants to New York, where I lived, began to pour in fromunaccustomed corners of the world, adding languages like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Farsi,Bengali, Pashtu, Twi, Fanti, Wollof, Albanian, and Dagumbi to our already richinventory of Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Yiddish, Portugese, Greek, Polish, and Hebrew. Iabandoned the policy. Now I want to learn them all – not completely, just enough todelight the heart of an Indian or African cab driver who never before in his entire life metan American who tried to learn his language.
Do as I Now Say, Not as I Then DidA wise man once said, “I wish I had all the time I’ve ever wasted, so I could waste it allover again.” Others may look at me and see someone who can, indeed, carry on acreditable conversation in about eighteen languages. I’m the only one who knows howmuch of my language learning time has been wasted, how little I’ve got to show for allthose years of study, considering the huge hunks of time I’ve put into it. In fact, I feellike one of those hardened convicts who’s occasionally let out of jail under armed guardto lecture the sophomore class on the importance of going straight. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it at all the way I did then. I’d do it theway I’m doing it now, the way I will detail in this book. It’s the way I’ve finally growninto and the way I hope you will proceed in order to get the absolute most out of yourlanguage learning dollar and your language learning minute. Here are some of the myths I held dear in the years when I thought I knew how tostudy languages, myths I now want to trample before you get the slightest bit seduced bythem. I’ll put on my language cassettes while I work around the house and learn thelanguage as easily as I learn the lyrics to popular songs. Great image. It just doesn’t work. You can’t just push a button and let the languageyou want to learn roll over you. Expecting to learn a language by laid back listening islike expecting to build a magnificent body by going to the gym, sitting in the steam room,chugging a glass of carrot juice, and then bragging about your “workout!” You’re going to have to study the material on that cassette, capture every word,learn it, review it, master it, and then check challenge yourself after every piece ofEnglish. (We’ll consider a “piece” to be whatever the speaker on the cassette says inEnglish before you hear the target language. It may be a word, a phrase, a wholesentence.) Abandon all images of language learning that resemble lying on a tropical beachand letting the warm surf splash over you. Pretend, instead, as you listen to your cassette,
that you’re a contestant on a TV game show. After each piece of English, ask yourself,“For one thousand dollars now, quick, how do I say that in the language I’m trying tolearn?” Since I’m not in school anymore, time isn’t important. I’ll take my time, skip a day,skip two days; the language will still be there when I get back to it. Spoken like a true linguaphony. A language has a lot in common with a militaryfoe. Don’t let it rest. Don’t let it regroup and devise fresh ways to foil your attack. Keepup the rhythm of your offensive. Keep your momentum going. (This is only anillustration of tactics, of course; no language is an enemy.) A programme that featuresdisciplined effort will convince you that you’re serious and generate fresh inspiration andenergy. The chapter I’m studying now is hard and probably not too important. I’ll skip itand get back to it later on. That’s a giant killer. The declension of the numbers in Russian. The subjunctive inthe Romance languages. The double infinitive in German. The enclitics in Serbo-Croatian. The noun cases in Finnish. Almost every language has formidable mountains toclimb. Don’t walk around them. Climb them! Take one step at a time. Just be carefulnever to surrender to the temptation to beg off the hard stuff and learn only those parts ofthe language you find congenial. It will seem masochistic, but I want you to learn the names of the letters of thealphabet in your target language and the grammatical terms too, so that when you ask anative how a certain word is spelled, you can bandy the letters back and forth in thelanguage. When you ask a native for the past tense of this verb or the negative plural ofthat noun, do your asking in the target language. I’m never going to pose as a native speaker of their language, and I’d never be ableto pull it off even if I tried, so why bother to develop the right accent? Nobody is arrested for indecent exposure just because he dresses poorly. On theother hand, a person unconcerned about dress will never impress us with his appearance.It’s the same with the proper accent. As long as you’re going to go to the trouble oflearning a language, why not try – at very little extra cost – to mimic the genuine accent. A poor accent will still get you what you want. A good accent will get you muchmore. If you can put on a foreign accent to tell ethnic jokes, you can put one on when youspeak another language. If you think you can’t, try! A lot of Americans believe they’reunable to capture a foreign accent when subconsciously they’re merely reluctant to try.We’re all taught that it’s rude to make fun of foreigners. That childhood etiquette ishereby countermanded. “Make fun” of the foreigner’s accent as effectively as you can asyou learn his language. Your “infancy” in a foreign language is spent learning to grope with incompletephrases made up of incorrect words to mash your meaning across. “Babyhood” comeswhen some of the phrases are complete and more of the words are correct.
“Childhood” arrives when you can deal rather fluently with concepts involvingbread, bed, buttons, and buses, even though you can’t yet discuss glassblowing inRenaissance Estonia. “Adulthood” is being able to discuss absolutely anything, but with a pronouncedAmerican accent. With “maturity” you acquire a creditable accent in the language. You’llknow you’ve achieved maturity when you become annoyed at other Americans you hearplodding through the language with no effort to “foreignise” their accent to approximatethe correct one. Be content with partial victories. I rejoiced the moment I learned I could speakSwedish well enough to convince a Norwegian I was a Finn. I celebrated when I realisedI could speak Serbo-Croatian well enough to convince an Italian I was a Czech! There will come a moment when I will cross a border and earn the right to say,“Yes, I speak your language”! There’s no such border. Learning a language is a process of encroachment into theunknown. When can you say you “speak a language”? The famous ophthalmologist Dr.Peter Halberg of New York refuses to consider that he speaks a language unless and untilhe can conduct a medical lecture in the language and then take hostile questioning fromhis peers. By his standards, he only speaks five languages! My standards are less exacting. I’ll confess to “speaking a language” if, afterengaging in deep conversation with a charming woman from a country whose languageI’m studying, I have difficulty the next morning recalling which language it was we werespeaking. The Language Club, about which I will say more later, has a valuable guideline.When anybody asks a Language Clubber, “How many languages do you speak?” hegives the only safe answer, “One. I speak my native language.” He lets a breath go by tolet that “one” sink in, after which he may then add, “However, I am a student of…” andmentions as many languages as he likes. To the question, “Do you speak such and such a language?” the all class response isa James Bond smile and three words: “Yes, a little.” It’s much better to let peoplegradually realise that your “little” is really quite a bit than to have them realise that your“Yes, I speak such and such” is a fraud. Say you’ve been studying Indonesian, far from a commonplace language, and toyour amazement (and delight) one of the other guests for dinner is from Indonesia.Repress the instinct to yelp at your good fortune. Act at first as though you know nothingof Indonesian. Don’t even say “Pleased to meet you” in Indonesian. There will be time.At the right point, much later in the proceedings, you’ll have the opening to remark,“That’s what the merchants of Djakarta would call…” and then let go your best burst ofwit – in Indonesian. For you to actually speak Indonesian and allow so much time to elapse beforeclaiming your applause is downright noble. Beware flying socks when you lean over toyour new Indonesian friend and, lowering your voice so as not to appear to be callingattention to yourself, finally unleash your evening’s first volley of Indonesian.
Psych UpAmericans have grown up believing learning languages is hard. It is not hard! It merelyseems hard because language instruction in American schools and colleges has untillately been so exasperatingly dull and unrewarding. Grammar, I again protest, is usually presented in American classrooms as a kind ofobstacle course designed to leave you gasping face down on the Astroturf somewherebetween the pluperfect and the subjunctive. Grammar can do that to you if you insist onattacking it the old way: frontally, rule by rule, exception by exception, with no fun enroute and never feeling the joy of progress. You’re going to learn grammar, all right, but the conquest will never give you pain.You will waft through the thickest walls of grammar like a cartoon ghost and continueyour journey onward through the language. Every time you look backward that wall willbe lower, thinner, full of increasingly wider openings, and eventually it will disappearentirely. Contrary to centuries of American superstition, you don’t have to conquer thegrammar to possess the language. Conquer the language and you’ll possess the grammar! I’ve long entertained the fantasy of putting the old orthodox grammarians on trialfor war crimes, the specific charge being assassination of the fun that flows from gainingcommand of another language. Their defense will predictably be “Bah, humbug. Youcan’t immerse, converse, rehearse, or even play around with a foreign language without agood foundation in the grammar!” They’re right in insisting on the importance of grammar, but who says you’ve got tohave it first, as some kind of brutal initiation? Where is it written that you must wrapcold, wet blankets of grammar around your eagerness to learn another language until itdisappears? (Your eagerness, that is. The grammar never does.) A six year old in America doesn’t know what the word grammar means, but heknows to say “he does” and not “he do.” How does he know? “He do” just doesn’t soundright. That’s all! And that’s enough! Years later he will be taught that the English verb in the third person singular of thepresent tense adds an s or es to the infinitive form, which serves uninflected for all otherpersons singular and plural.
You don’t have to know grammar to obey grammar. If you obey grammar from theoutset, when you turn around later and learn why you should say things the way you’realready saying them, each grammatical rule will then become not an instrument ofabstract torture disconnected from anything you’ve experienced but rather an old friendwho now wants you to have his home address and private phone number. When the grammatical rule come first, followed by its pitiful two or three examplesin the textbook, it seems to the student like an artificially confected bit of perversityrolled down upon his head like a boulder. When the grammatical rule comes after you’ve got some of the language in you, itbecomes a gift flashlight that makes you smile and say, “Now I understand why they sayit that way!” So, you are right now and forevermore warned not to bridle or to question, “Why isthe word for ‘go’ in this French sentence vais and in the very next sentence aller?”Simply embrace the faith that both sentences are correct and learn them like Catholicchildren in strict parochial schools learn the Baltimore Catechism. The more shaken you become by grammatical storms, the more tightly you musthug the faith. I vow it will all become clear. And in this world. You won’t have to waitfor any other. It’s easy to reason, “Who am I trying to kid? They’ll always know I’m a foreigner.They’ll excuse my mistakes. So forget about all those rules. I just want to get by. Gimmesome words and phrases and get out of my way. As long as they understand!” That’s an attitude to be resisted. When you learn another language, you will beaccepted as an honoured volunteer into the culture of another people. Do you want to beaccorded a low rank or a high rank? Learn the language properly, which means(eventual) conquest of the grammar. Don’t be a buck private when, for a few minutes ofextra concentration, you can be a general. Look at it this way. Grammar is not a marathon run in which, if you tire, falter, orfall, you fail. Grammar is an edifice you must build on your property. But it doesn’t haveto be done all at once. At the appointed moment in your studies, I will advise you tomaster the first five lessons in your grammar book. (Some call it a textbook or aworkbook – it’s the book they’ll give you at the bookstore if you ask, “Have you gotanything that teaches you French?”) After that, you will advance through reading,conversation, comprehension, and real world contact with the languages in addition to thegrammar. As I grappled with the complexities of grammar in Russian, Finnish, Hungarian,and, to a lesser extent, German, I had visions of those people way back when they werewandering tribes. I imagined the tribal elders squatting around campfires consulting withsoothsayers who warned them, “In the mid twentieth century a child will be born to theFarber family in a place they’ll call America. He will try to learn our language. Atpresent it’s too simple. Get back to work and come up with some more grammar. Let ournoun endings mire him up to his hips. Let the felsh of his face feel the thorns of ourverbs. Flay his back with exceptions to our rules and let his hair get caught in ourinflecting negatives and perfective aspects. “Hurry!” the soothsayer concludes. “We haven’t got a century to waste. Get in thereright now and mess our language up so that poor guy will never get it!”
Now let the adult mind enter and make peace. Obviously, no language tries to behard just to keep you out. Whatever rules you find perplexing in your target language,that language came by them naturally and organically. Grammar does change, but soslowly you’ll never have to worry about it. Approach the grammar with a smile and yourhand extended. That which you understand, take and keep. That which is confusing,return to again and again. That which seems impossible, return to again and again andagain, until it becomes merely confusing. It will ultimately become clear. Meanwhile,however, you will be speeding ahead in your command of the language as you keepreturning to those stubborn fortresses of grammatical resistance. I can honestly say I came to like the study of grammar. Once you finally approachgrammar with the right attitude, it becomes both a map that shows you the pathwaysthrough a language and a rocket that takes you there faster. A paleontologist can find lifetime fascination with a fossil a child might ignore,kick, or toss into the lake just to hear the splash. Likewise, the grammar of variouslanguages throws off some laughs and insights nonlinguists never get a chance to marvelat. In German, for example, a woman doesn’t achieve feminine gender until she getsmarried. The word for “girl” (Mädchen) and “miss” (Fräulein) are both neuter gender. InRussian, the past tense of verbs acts like an adjective; it doesn’t shift forms according toperson and number as verbs normally do, but shift according to gender and number asadjectives do. In Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish the definite article (“the”) follows thenoun and is attached to it. Therefore, “a field” in Norwegian is en mark. “The field,”,however, is marken. Romanian and Albanian, completely unrelated to the Scandinavianlanguages, do the same thing. In Finnish, the word for “not” is a verb. (At least it behaves like a verb.) Finnish,alone in all the world, has an inflecting negative. In every other language in which verbsconjugate, the form of the verb changes according to person and number, whether theverb is positive or negative. Thus, in Spanish the verb meaning “to want” goes yo quiero,tu quieres, el quiere. If you wish to say “I don’t want”, you keep the verb forms the sameand throw the word for “not”, no, in front of it (yo no quiero, tu no quieres, el no quiere). In Finnish, and this is pure believe-it-or-not to anyone who’s looked at a lot ofdifferent languages, it’s the word for not that does the changing! Thus, “I want,” “youwant,” “he wants” in Finnish goes, (minä) haluan, (sinä) haluat, (hän) halua. In thenegative, however, the verb for “want” becomes halua in all persons and the word for“not” changes from person to person. Thus, “I don’t want,” “you don’t want,” “hedoesn’t want” becomes (minä) en halua, (sinä) et halua, (hän) ei halua. I think my most impossible to top discovery is the fact that in Hindi and Urdu“tomorrow” and “yesterday” are translated by the same word. Once, a Pakistani cabdriver actually seemed irked that I found that to be at all strange. “We have verb tenses totell us which is which” was his testy explanation. American feminists have mounted crusades to convert sexist terms that have overthe years insinuated themselves deep into the language. We’ve all abandoned chairman,for example, for the cumbersome but less provocative chairperson, manhole formaintenance hole, and so on. It’s strange that the most blazing example of language sexism has gone unreformed,even though it occurs in some countries with active and successful feminist movements.
Maybe it’s because, unlike manhole, this sexism is more than just a word or a term. It’sgone through the bone into the marrow, through the words of the language into thegrammar. You may remember it from Spanish 1. You may have gotten it right on the tests andnot thought of it since. I refer to the Romance language “gender surrender” fromfeminine to masculine. Let’s say two women are having lunch. If you want to refer to them in Spanish, theword is ellas, the feminine “they” or “them.” If they should be joined by a man, however,the ellas becomes ellos, masculine for “they” or “them.” And no matter how many morewomen show up and crowd around the table, the Spanish language can never put thathumpty dumpty ellas back into play – unless the lone man leaves! Theoretically, a million women can be rallying in the main square of the capital.The newspapers will report that ellas rallied, made demands, did thus and so. If, however,one man wanders into the square to join in, the proper pronoun is ellos! And that samerule goes for French, Italian, Portugese, Romanian, and a few other languages. You may never come to love grammar, but work with it. Although sometimesannoying and thick in disguise, it’s your friend.
French or Tagalog: Choosing a LanguageWhat are your language objectives? This is not merely one of those abstract questions universities and fitness centreslike to annoy you with before they accept your application. Are you planning to marry a German and live in Germany? Then the language youwant to learn in German. You should stick to German and learn it well. Do you own ahardware store in a neighbourhood of a growing American city where your customersrepresent eighteen different language groups, including Tagalog and Punjabi? Then youwant to learn greetings, key business expressions like “invoice” and “charge account,”and the names of as many items in your inventory as you can in eighteen differentlanguages, including Tagalog and Punjabi. The way you’re going to spend your language learning hours depends on yourobjectives. We’re going to presume here that whatever language you choose to learn, you wantto learn well. If you merely want to learn a smattering of greetings and phrases in a lot oflanguages, great. You’re in for a lot of fun, particularly when you see, if you haven’talready, how far even a few words can carry you. In that case, the departure from themethod outlined here is obvious. You don’t need mastery of the grammar. Most bigbookstores offer racks of phrase books for travellers in up to twenty-five differentlanguages. Buy all you want and study your favourite ten or fifteen of the first hundredphrases in each. Don’t feel frivolous if you feel you want to learn a language but don’t know whichone. You’re part of a movement to correct a weakness that has bedevilled America sincethe founding of our nation. Do you like opera? Try Italian. Diamonds? Try Dutch.Commercial advantage? German or Japanese. Cutting edge positioning for the worlddown the road? Chinese or Arabic. East-West barrier breaking and door opening?Russian. French is second only to English as an international language, spoken far beyondthe borders of France itself. Spanish enables Americans to become more complete
citizens of the Western Hemisphere, while a resurgent Spain itself becomes anincreasingly important part of Europe. If willingness of subject peoples to learn the language of the conqueror is anyindication of the conqueror’s popularity, then the winning conqueror is England and theloser is Russia. Those forced into Moscow’s postwar empire had an aversion to learningRussian, but in spite of Communism’s failure, the Russian language remains the mostwidely spoken of the Slavic languages. It can be your key to the dozen or so relatedlanguages (Polish, Czech, etc.). Maybe you want to learn a difficult language, like Finnish; an easy language, likeIndonesian; a useful language, like French; or an obscure language, like Albanian. My motives for learning various languages have ranged from chance and youthfulenergy (Norwegian) to wanting a vital tool for my work (Spanish) to processing refugees(Hungarian) to getting dates with women whose looks I liked (Swedish) to proving Iwasn’t an idiot for almost flunking Latin (Chinese). Nobody who sells language learning books and devices will ever frown indisappointment at your choice of a language. Don’t feel you have to apologise or explainthat you want to learn Czech – or Catalan or Yoruba or Urdu or Kurdish – for no otherreason than you’re tired of walking around a world as exciting as this one speaking onlyone language!
Gathering Your ToolsYou’ve decided which language you’re going to learn, and you’ve made a deal with thegrammar of that language: you agree to learn it, and in return it agrees not to rush you,bore you, discourage you, or hurt you. Now it’s time to go shopping. Find a bookstore that offers a broad selection oflanguage learning materials. Don’t settle for one where the clerk is not sure but says,“We might have something in French and Spanish over in ‘Language.’” BASIC TEXTBOOKFind a basic book (textbook, workbook) that gives you a good grounding in the grammarof the language. Never mind if it seems to give you grammar and little else. Never mindif it reminds you of the books that depressed you back in high school and college. We’llfind all the excitement – reading and conversation – elsewhere. Grammar is all you needfrom this one. DICTIONARYMost language dictionaries are two way: English-French (or whatever) and French-English. Make sure the dictionary you buy at least lives up to that. (I have walked out ofbookstores with dictionaries I assumed were two way that turned out to be only one way,and the way I wasn’t looking for!) A lot of dictionaries are infuriatingly inadequate. They don’t even have words likenegotiate and proprietor. Spend a little time making sure you’re getting somethingsubstantial. It’s a good idea to look through a newspaper and make a list of some of themore complicated words in the news columns. Those are the words you’ll soon belooking up. Does that dictionary have them? Price, colour, and the neatness with whichthe dictionary fits into your pocket, brief case, or handbag are a lot less important thanfinding a dictionary that can deliver.
PHRASE BOOKBuy a phrase book for travellers. Berlitz publishes a series in eighteen languages, andothers keep popping up in bookstores and the racks of airport newsstands. They’reinexpensive and easy to use. These books, smaller than a piece of toast, offer little or nogrammar, but they bristle with practical words and phrases, listing the English followedby the foreign language and then a transliteration that guides the rankest beginner to anunderstandable, usually a creditable, pronunciation. Don’t be put off by the naïveté, inexpensiveness, superficiality, and comparativeweightlessness of these travellers’ phrase books when laid alongside your impressivedictionary and your complex grammar book. Good zoos need hummingbirds as well aselephants. NEWSPAPER OR MAGAZINEFind a newspaper or magazine in your target language. Most big cities have newsstandswhere you can buy publications in a dazzling variety of different languages. Otherwise,call the nearest consulate or embassy of the country whose language you’re out to learn.Usually they’re proud and pleased to help you. If you have a choice, go for a publicationfrom that country itself, rather than one published by immigrants from that country inAmerica. Certainly no foreign language publication printed in America is likely tocontain language more authentic than publications printed in the home country, and itmay very well be less authentic. A friend of mine who set out to learn French immediately bought a subscription toLe Monde, a popular Paris daily. That’s overkill. If he were to learn every word in anyone issue of Le Monde, it would be “mission accomplished.” One issue of onepublication in your target language at this point is all you need. STUDENT READERIt may be difficult, but if possible see if you can locate a schoolbook or some readingmaterial from the country at about a sixth grade level. Such books are obviously excellentbridges from the rudiments to the real world. If you can’t find one, never mind. Yournewspaper or magazine will seem elementary to you soon enough. PORTABLE TAPE PLAYERThe invention of the handy portable cassette tape player catapults language learners fromthe ox cart to the supersonic jet. You can now inhale a foreign language through yourears. “You can’t expect me to do two things at once!” is a bygone complaint. Listening toforeign language cassettes as you go about your daily deeds is a high form of doing twothings at once. The Walkman (or any such tape player) is an electronic can opener for whateverlanguage you’re learning. Formerly we had to chew through the tin.
CASSETTE COURSESThere are many cassette courses in many foreign languages. They range from “travel”cassettes, really simple tourist phrase books set to sound and costing between ten andtwenty dollars, clear up to multicassette study courses that carry the student intoadvanced levels and cost between one and two hundred dollars, or more. Don’t dismiss the least expensive ones as “superficial little travel cassettes.” If youmaster every word, every phrase, every pronunciation, and every grammatical pointcontained in even the simplest of those cassettes, you can consider yourself advanced. There are basically four kinds of cassettes for the study of foreign languages. We’llcall them flat single rep, flat double rep, formatted, and cultural. The flat single rep cassettes, usually the least expensive, give you the English wordor phrase followed by the foreign equivalent uttered only one time. The flat double rep cassettes are the same, except the foreign phrase is repeatedtwice. (When you begin making your own study cassettes, you’ll repeat the foreign piecethree times.) The formatted cassette puts theories of instruction into practice and follows systemsthat some highly successful language teachers have found effective. For example thePimsleur method, named after the late Dr. Paul Pimsleur, takes the student by the ear andguides him through the language as though it were a Disneyland exhibit. UnfortunatelyDr. Pimsleur died before he could personally develop courses in a large variety oflanguages to advanced levels. His techniques, however, are being applied to morecourses in more languages by Dr. Charles A. S. Heinle of the Cassette Learning Centre inConcord, Massachusetts. The Pimsleur method provides the best minute by minute “learning throughlistening,” thanks to several strokes of Dr. Pimsleur’s innovative genius. First of all, you become a participant. Pimsleur doesn’t let you merely listen inhopes your lazy mind will help itself to some of the new words being offered on thesmorgasbord. After five minutes with any Pimsleur course you will always harbour acertain disdain for all cassette courses that merely give you a voice saying something inEnglish followed by the equivalent in the target language. Pimsleur pricks yourwandering mind to attention by asking, for example, “Do you remember the Greek wordfor ‘wine’?” Theoretically, that little trick shouldn’t make a spectacular difference. After all, youbought the course. You want to learn the language. Why should the teacher on cassettehave to find ways to constantly recover your attention? The unfortunate truth is that theaverage mind plays hooky whenever possible. The difference between Pimsleur asking,“Do you remember the Greek word for ‘wine’?” and a voice simply saying “wine” is, asMark Twain once put it, “the difference between lightning and the lightning bug!” Nor does Pimsleur always settle for the simple verbal prompt. A typical Pimsleurtactic is to demand, “You accidentally bump into a man getting on the bus. What do yousay?” That ingrains the foreign phrases for “excuse me” far more than a rote recitation ofthe words themselves. Pimsleur’s “graduated interval recall” achieves what I call the “pinball effect.”When the steel ball in the pinball machine nears the bottom, you can manipulate the
flippers to catch the ball and send it all the way back to the top again. Likewise, at thevery instant when your mind is about to let a new word or phrase “fall to the bottom”,Pimsleur zings it in again, sending it back to the top of your awareness. This time itdoesn’t sink so fast. When it does, Pimsleur hits it again. Pimsleur gives you a pause on the cassette after each question he asks you. In theearly going there’s a temptation to stop the machine while you flounder for the answer.Don’t! Learn to try to come up with the answer during the pause provided. That willmore than teach you the word. It will train you to have that word ready for action at alltimes. It’s marvellous to feel your growth as you relisten to your Pimsleur lessons,succeeding more and more each time at delivering the required word before the teacher’svoice rolls over you with the next question. Berlitz is the most famous name in language instruction, and except for the BerlitzTravel Cassettes, which are flat single rep, all their cassette courses are formatted. TheBerlitz Basic Courses, available in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, featureingenious conversations between teacher and students, and their top of the line BerlitzComprehensive Courses are really dazzling soap opera-like sagas filled with romance,treachery, suspense, and drama. Both the basic and the comprehensive courses sneakmassive payloads of grammar and vocabulary into the student’s repertoire. Cultural cassettes aren’t really language learning cassettes at all, but many peoplesuppose they are and buy and sell them as such. Songs, plays, readings, stories, andpoems in foreign languages are indeed helpful, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the “highprotein” intake needed to build command of a foreign language. They’re great relaxers,tests of how far you’ve come, adjunctive exercises, and ways of letting the foreignerknow that you view his language as more than just a briar patch of irregular verbs. The cultural cassettes are the condiments. The others are the entrées. BLANK CASSETTESWe have do it yourself gasoline pumps. We do not have do it yourself eye surgery. It mayseem strange to some (and wildly objectionable to others) to recommend do it yourselflanguage cassettes starring you in the language you are trying to learn. Orthodoxlanguage teachers are likely to consider that something akin to doing your own eyesurgery. I’ve found it extremely helpful. At some point you will have gotten the hang ofpronunciation sufficiently to push the record button of your cassette player and reciteyour own words and phrases onto a blank cassette. Your pronunciation will not be good.It may be bad. But the value of being able to listen to a cassette with the words you needand want at the moment – rather than a cassette prepared by somebody with noknowledge of you, your desires, or your needs – much more than outweighs thedisadvantage of your imperfections. So, get blank cassettes – the shortest possible – so you can start building a cassettelibrary of the words and phrases you want to know to supplement those the educatorswho produced all the standard cassettes decided to teach you first. It’s better to know the word – its meaning, its spelling, its use in sentences – even ifyou have to listen to it in your unskilled accent, than not to know the word at all.
FLASH CARDSPrinted flash cards are available in the major languages. They’re about the size ofbusiness cards and usually provide a vocabulary of a thousand words. Flash cards are themost underrated language learning tool of all. They’ve been around for decades and gowidely unused, even by those who own them. Flash cards commonly list the English word (plus related words) on one side of thecard and their foreign equivalents on the other. Some sets of flash cards give you a littlegrammar at no extra cost, adding to the word itself the forms of that word a student of thelanguage should know. The language student should reach for a fresh stack of flash cards before he leaveshome in the morning as instinctively as a policeman reaches for his badge. The flashcards, more than any other tool, can help the student take advantage of the day’s “hiddenmoments,” the secret weapon upon which the promise and the premise of this method isbased. Learn how to keep your flash cards handy. Whip them out and flash test yourselfthe instant you find yourself with the time. (The person you’re walking with stops to lookat a shop window. You’ve read the menu, finished the newspaper, and the waiter hasn’tcome yet. The clerk has to validate your credit card. There’s a line at the bank or at theticket counter. The elevator seems to be stopping at all floors.) Learn how to draw thosecards out and start flashing even if all you’ll have is five seconds. If the person you’retelephoning doesn’t answer until the fifth ring, he’s given you time to go through two orthree entries. Learn to be quick. I’ve learned how to master a whole new Chinesecharacter between the time I dial the last digit and the time my party says hello. BLANK FLASH CARDSWhether you can locate prepared flash cards in your target language or not, go to yournearest stationery store and get a hefty supply of blanks. As you travel through thelanguage you’ll constantly come across new words, modern slang, special phrases you’dlike to know, cute sayings a native speaker teaches you at a party, and the like. Capturethem immediately on your blank flash cards and carry a stack with you at all times. Inlater chapters when we learn how all these tools interrelate, you’ll realise the importanceof your own homemade flash cards. Purists may quarrel about recording your ownforeign language vocabulary building cassettes. Nobody can quarrel with you preparingyour own flash cards. STURDIKLEERSSturdikleers are the handy celluloid or plastic packets that protect passports, driver’slicenses, etc. Find the size that best accommodates a stack of flash cards and pick up asmany as you need, or more. FELT HIGHLIGHTER PEN
You’ll need a felt pen to mark all the words in your newspaper or magazine that youdon’t know. Choose a colour that highlights but doesn’t obscure the word when you markit. Those are the tools. Now let’s go do the job!
The Multiple Track AttackSo is there really a magic way to make learning a foreign language painless? Yes and no. We have some magic, all right, tricks and tactics that literally shovelthe language into your head, as opposed to your high school Spanish class thatteaspooned it in or didn’t bother getting it in at all. The system, however, won’t workunless you do. There’s going to be pain, but you will have something – plenty – to showfor it. The promise here is not gain without pain. It’s the most gain for the least pain. If you suddenly decide to get physically fit (just as you’ve decided to learn anotherlanguage) you wouldn’t sit around and wonder, “Let’s see. We’ve got aerobic exercises,free weights, stretching, high tech gym machines, jogging, swimming, vitamins, andsensible nutrition. Which one shall I use?” Obviously, you’re going to use a mix of some or all of the above. And that’s theway to approach learning another language. The multiple track attack simply parts fromthe absurd notion that you should choose a grammar book or a cassette course or a readeror a phrase book; instead, it sets you up with all of the above – and more –simultaneously. You will fail or you will succeed. If you fail, your books, cassettes, dictionaries,and scattered flash cards will litter your drawers and closets like so many unliftedbarbells, unswallowed vitamins, unsoiled workout suits, and unused jogging shoes. Theywill mock you every time your embarrassed eye falls upon them. Succeed, and you’ll be the proud owner of another language. Charles Berlitz says that saying a word or phrase aloud ten to twenty times is moreeffective a learning technique than merely reading the same item fifty to one hundredtimes. Likewise, seeing a word or phrase in your grammar book fifty times does notsecure it in your memory as effectively as seeing it two or three times and them comingacross that same word or phrase by surprise in a newspaper or magazine or hearing it ona cassette or in a radio broadcast or a movie or in conversation with a native speaker.